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Trey Sanders - Empowering Sensory

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Trey Sanders, RD and certified food scientist, is a Research and Development Manager for Bulletproof 360. Trey graduated with undergraduate degrees in sensory science and dietetics before completing his master's in Food Product Development, Modification & Acceptability. He has spent the last 10 years integrating sensory science and nutrition into product development, including roles at Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds and Continental Mills. Trey’s previous sensory experience has included employee panel program development, consumer field testing and analysis, panel training, and external consumer coordination through focus groups and central location testing. His current role involves overseeing all aspects of the sensory program and guiding the strategic use of its principles to drive positive business outcomes.

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: Trey, welcome to the show.

Trey: Thank you for having me, John.

John: Thanks a lot for being on. So, Trey, there's a lot of things I'd actually like to talk to you about. But I think that the thing that really, you're very interesting person, I found from our preliminary calls and I think that you have a unique perspective because you could do a background in nutrition and sensory. And I think there's a lot to talk about there. So maybe before we get into my questions, it would be good for the listeners to hear a little bit about your background and how you got to your current role.

Trey: Sure. Absolutely. Yeah, to your point for me, I came in as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia and my emphasis was both in sensory science as well as dietetics. For me, that really came because I felt like I wanted to be able to, actually were really similar, I'm talking to people about food. That was really how I approach sensory and how I thought about nutrition as well, even from my dietetic standpoint. The reason being is that I want to be able to help people make the best decisions they could and give them the best experiences they could with food. I thought some free and nutritional or two different ways of meeting that same goal.

John: Interesting. Were you doing in of nutrition first or was there where they both really just you were interested in food and then they were two sides of the same coin?

Trey: I was actually interested in sensory first. I came in very much wanting to go to culinary school and sensory science originally was the way for me going that route before I just completely fell head over heels for sensory and that relationship of talking to people about food. And that's kind of what opened the door to dietetics.

John: That's really interesting. And so then so you're working, so you're interested in sensory, something to give your path, so you want to be a chef, you get into sensory, then you got a sensory and you're talking to people about food. So then what caused you to take the additional step to get interested in dietetics?

Trey: Sure. With dietetics, it was also the sense that I knew that there is so much related to health outcomes that food can play a role in. And I think that is one thing I appreciate the food so much, but it just seemed almost you know, it seemed like there'd be a mystery to not think about the impact it's having on people's bodies and how they can use that to improve their own health outcomes.

John: That's fascinating. Okay, and so then you continued on, you graduated with your undergraduate, and then you continued on each side and to pursue the graduate degree in food science?

Trey: Absolutely. Without dating myself too much, there is this recession that happened and gave me the wonderful opportunity to really look at my educational opportunities. So graduate schools, where I continued on and I actually did my dietetic internship during my summers of graduate school, so I was able to complete that coursework at the same time.

John: Fascinating. Okay, and so then from there, you went into pure sensory. So your first job was then at wonderful pistachios and almonds. Is that correct?

Trey: That is correct. And yes, I came in as a sensory scientist, really working to grow that program based in Los Angeles, California.

John: And where there are opportunities from the very beginning to also embrace your like nutrition interest, or is that something that you had to kind of put on hold at the beginning?

Trey: It was a little bit of both. And it's something that's almost been the, really the tale of my career is integrating nutrition into my food science realm. For wonderful that really manifested as food product labeling and regulatory which I'm very grateful for now, especially early on in my career having that experience. But still not the way I was expecting to be incorporating nutrition in terms of food product development.

John: I see. Okay and so then you went on to Continental Mills after that. Did you have to move or are they in Minneapolis?

Trey: Continental Mills is based in Seattle area. So this was at least the move by going from California to Seattle and joining the team there. And that role was absolutely different because that was not at all sensory related and more focused solely on product development. So I was on the other side of the fence requesting, you know, from our sensory team and of course, with my background, so worked very closely with them. But it gave me an opportunity to really integrate nutrition into the product development realm, and that was where Continental Mills allowed me that ability.

John: I see. Okay, so how long have you been with Bulletproof now? When did you make the switch?

Trey: Sure. I've been with Bulletproof for just over a year now.

John: Oh wow.

Trey: Well, yes or I had about seven business days in the office before quarantine kicked off things.

John: That's right because you guys got hit early up there.

Trey: We did, so the very end of February, and yeah, here we are.

John: So actually, that's interesting. Yeah, just so we can go inside because, yeah, we were talking about technology. I mean, we need to talk a little bit about technology on this podcast. So what was that like onboarding at a new company? Like I guess everything suddenly was remote? You know, you have to meet your new colleagues in a bunch of Zoom calls I guess?

Trey: Sure. I would say I was not as fortunate as Bulletproof was. Bulletproof was already connected through Zoom, wholly integrated with Zoom long before quarantine or covid happened. So my first day logging on, Zoom was the first thing that was installed on my laptop. And this was again before covid or anything like that happened. So little did I know the extent of it. But nonetheless, the environment was already such where virtual collaboration was normal. So for me, it was coming in and getting up to speed with that.

John: Okay, that's interesting. Okay, well then maybe we should go right into, I do want to come back to the interplay between sensory and nutrition, I think it's fascinating. However, I think we should go ahead and talk a little bit about the fact that Bulletproof is much more of a technology company than your kind of typical, say, food company might be. So maybe it would be good to talk about your experience. You know how it is that sort of tech principles are applied at Bulletproof? And what are some of the lessons that you think sensory scientists and people working at food company should be taking from that kind of tech sector?

Trey: Absolutely. Bulletproof does a great example of really showing that you can have a lot of that startup culture and atmosphere, but still have the right rigor and balance that you would expect food industry associated companies to have or supplement associated companies to have. And that has really been the story I would probably the biggest lesson I provide back to our fellow colleagues in sensory world would be right sizing that due diligence. It's a matter of understanding what objectives are you trying to find or execute against and then making sure you're using the right sensory tool to do that. Obviously, we have a variety of tools that we know of in the sensory world we can use at our disposal. As sensory leaders communicating that back to the business that, hey, for this objective, we have these different tools that we could use for the standpoint of making sure we are balancing agile product development. You know, being first to market as possible or fast falling as the case may be, that we're able to use that to our advantage and make sure we're making the best decisions possible.

John: That's fascinating. Yeah, and I do agree that speed is one of the big strong points right of the tech sector.

Trey: Yeah. Speed is absolutely one thing the really agility. It's about knowing which tools you have at your disposal and when you want to go about using them. So it's not necessarily that you'll be at startup companies and they will you know, you'll only have a certain tool that's available to you. CLT's can absolutely be something you can call upon, whether focus groups, descriptive analysis. Those are also common tools as sensory scientists can use in a tech startup space. It's just a matter of balancing. How can I implement this in the appropriate amount of time or make sure we're using it to fully meet our needs? We might not necessarily need a descriptive analysis to meet an objective. If we have relevant data about this product or this category and we have experience in that. Let's make sure that leveraging some of the expertise we might have internally to make sure regarding those decisions, do we need to have the same level of external consumer feedback for products that are already existing to us versus one step or not and being able to help kind of guide the strategic conversations accordingly based on that?

John: Yeah, and I really like what you said about the fact that we know a lot already. I mean, it's something that we work with our clients all the time. Try to figure out to kind of quantify the historical knowledge in terms of databasing. And I would say that even a step beyond that, just trusting that your experts do in fact have the knowledge and that it isn't necessary to test everything, that you can move faster. So what are some of the principles of agile methodology that you find to be kind of most helpful things that, you know, when you look back at the earlier parts of your career, if you were to go back to those companies things you would try to help them implement?

Trey: Sure. I would say from the sensory sciences standpoint, I think the most mindful of them recognizing that really the amount of tools and knowledge that sensory scientists tend to have. Their expertise tends to outweigh the rest of the company in terms of sensory knowledge there. That they really are wholly relying on you and that even as coming in as relatively new sensory trained scientists, having that background and actually being sensory trained, even among other food scientists, provide you a higher level of expertise that you can leverage. Long story short, the fact that you have knowledge, the basic difference between hedonic versus difference testing, being able to communicate that, even at the very beginnings, we'll do a world away in helping to communicate business objectives and helping guide all levels of executives and management through the process.

John: Right.

Trey: I think that was something earlier on I thought I needed to have a stronger grounding in descriptive analysis or really make sure I've done my grunt work and learning about focus groups or CLT's and obviously getting that information is great. But even knowing when you need to use those tools and being able to communicate that is a very valuable skill that a lot of companies really do value.

John: Right. Now, that's really, really important. A lot of times, you know, the point of education is to give you a framework through which to see the world. Right? A way of understanding the information that comes in. And I do think that that's really insightful, that the idea that products could be different, but maybe equally liked. Maybe the difference doesn't matter to liking. Maybe, you know, now the product appeals to different people, but on average, it's likely the same. Right? Yeah. That's really, really, you know, being able to have that awareness I think is being extremely valuable.

Trey: Right. What are we doing this for? We can absolutely do the executional work and help guide them to that. But to your point, because we had that framework now of understanding what we're doing. We can better take that to the business and say, hey, I understand this objective is launching this new product or maybe we're just trying to outdo ourselves or improve against ourselves. Okay, here's a set of tools we can do to help you achieve that in a way that makes sure we're not breaking the bank, but also balancing cost and relevance. We want to make sure we're not losing ourselves in a way that harms us. Obviously, there are benefits to that as well. You know, we can use that to our benefit in helping to describe opportunities to improve. Being able to communicate that to our business as well, that having some of that bias can be used for and against us as a sensory standpoint. And knowing that is a lot of what we're here to do.

John: That's fascinating. Let me just ask quickly, how about shelf life? How much are you involved in shelf life? Because that's kind of a third piece, right? Because you have the product when it is, you know when the product is first made. Of course, you have the nutritional aspect to that, which I think a lot of sensory scientists don't really tend to think about. And I definitely make sure we have time to talk about. But then you have the fact that, of course, the experience is changing over time and at the end point of that is food safety, because at some point the product is unsafe. So to what extent your career have you been involved in that, you know, other dimension of food and sensory?

Trey: Absolutely. With the shelf life or stability. I have been fortunate to actually, even from my time that wonderful I was managing our shelf life program. So very much a part of everything we're doing with sensory. And to your point, especially in the supplements world where you're looking a lot at botanicals or different bio-actives. How that will impact the flavor perception over time is absolutely something we have to look at and be mindful of.

John: Right.

Trey: Especially because even if you might have a great balance there or even a particular matrix, if it's a beverage, for instance, knowing that all of that continues to hold up over time and still deliver nutritional benefits at the end of its shelf life as well as balanced that taste standpoint is so fun act.

John: Okay. Now, that's something I've never thought about, Trey. That the actual nutritional benefits could be deteriorating over time. I've always thought, okay, it tastes worse and worse, and then it gets to be unsafe. But along the way the nutrition is also degraded. So, okay, let's talk a little bit about that, and then let's talk about the interaction between nutrition and sensory and some of the things you find interesting. So maybe just general thoughts, like what is the one on one version of nutrition that sensory scientists should be aware of that they are? What are the things about nutrition that sensory scientists should know but often don't?

Trey: Sure, I now say nutritional from the sense of I'll talk supplements like herbal botanical, I think that'd be a good way versus amino acids and other macronutrients. The taste impact of those herbs and botanicals are strong and they vary depending on the content of active constituents that you're going to be using. All that to say is that if we think very traditionally from a biological standpoint, antioxidants or polyphenols, these were compounds that were put off to ward off predators. So the taste of these are inherently those that are described to ward off people from consuming them. Obviously, that is the task we are fighting against is we are taking all these compounds that naturally are beneficial to us but from the taste standpoint, aren't there and we're trying to force their way into that. That is one standpoint. The other standpoint of that is that even as consumers, as people, we've all been exposed to lots of varieties of healthy foods and associations with how those foods should taste. And they have associations of high fat, low fat, high carb, low carb. There's still a taste profile that has evolved, but nonetheless a connotation that is developed that we actively have to fight against. The connotation that healthy food doesn't taste good because of the reasons I talked about before. But as food scientists and sensory scientists work together, really partnering in bridging the gaps, it's now helping consumers understand that, hey, this food actually can taste great and still deliver the same nutritional benefits.

John: Right. That's interesting because you have perceived efficacy matters too, right? Yeah and I definitely have worked, you know, I mean, this is, of course, an issue in the pharmaceutical space as well, that if something tastes too good, people won't believe it works.

Trey: Exactly.

John: That's really an interesting balancing act. So there's a lot of tradeoffs here. So how do you navigate like, okay, so there's the working on the product and then there's working with marketing with the communication? So first off, how involved are you on the marketing side or is your focus more on the product side?

Trey: You know, I'm really fortunate in being in research and development at Bulletproof that we really do span the product lifecycle. So we're very much involved with our marketing team in terms of understanding. I'm not doing the research with them. Of course, the consumer focus research from the qualitative standpoint, we absolutely let them lead, but we partner with them hand in hand in terms of what questions are we asking them, what information we're trying to glean back from them, how can we pair that with the data that we've learned already from our product to help us better understand where our consumers might be at. In the instance of what maybe we do have products that can taste better than what consumers might expect, but we can help move them along to understanding that those things are absolutely possible and still deliver the health outcomes that they would expect.

John: Yeah, that's fascinating. Okay, well, I don't pry too much here, but I am curious whether you are holding back in the sense that the products could taste better, but you don't launch the best tasting ones just yet because you have to move the needle like you don't have to answer that.

Trey: No, I wouldn't say that that would be the case for me in particular, but I would say that would be something that would not be a problem exclusive to Bulletproof.

John: I see. Yes, right. Yeah, that's very, very interesting. Okay, so let's talk now a little more detail about nutrition and sensory. About this kind of tradeoffs. So first, are there nutritional targets that you need to meet? I mean, is it the case that from a marketing standpoint, it's useful to put a certain number on the package? Or is it more, what is guiding your nutritional decision?

Trey: Yes, it will absolutely depend, depending on the product category or the space that we're in. One of the big things, of course, from my Bulletproof standpoint is science that you can feel. So everything, of course, that we're doing is claim substantiated. And all of the research is going in to make sure that is the case. So for me, it's the task of knowing that we do have nutritional targets that are set up by our marketing team. We are able to identify the right ingredients and substantiate them to make sure we have those targets. So if it's a food product, yes, we could have macro targets of X amount of protein, X amount of carbs, X amount of fat and go from there. Supplements space, obviously, it's a much different realm because you're not looking at those macronutrients, you could be looking at specific micronutrients, minerals, botanicals, and you're looking at those active amounts and playing to that end. The interesting thing about that space and even powder's where you kind of, you're almost splitting the sensory realm between full food product in that sense, and a capsule where you're really not looking at a sensory from the same sample. From a taste standpoint, I'll say appearances doesn't matter. You get to have a good balance of looking at flavor and really seeing, okay, how can I balance and mitigate against this wonderful impact people are going to feel, but making sure they want to put it in their mouth more than once. And then really working through that so it's more of the idea to somehow make that magic happen. I know I have got the right size ingredients. I know it's going to meet our needs. But what flavor system do I need to put in? What textures do I need to modify? Is the parents an issue? Do I need to look at colorants? And also within those realms, making sure I'm doing that in ways that aren't dishonoring our consumers? Every company has different ingredient guardrails that they adhere to. Bulletproof is obviously no different than other ones. So it's also knowing that we have those markers that we need to go against not withholding.

John: Right. You know, it's a multi-objective optimization problem. You've got all these objectives and you've got all these tradeoffs and you have this balancing act. It sounds like.

Trey: It is. Yeah, you've got a lot of great tools at your disposal, especially, you know, with the sensory you know, having a sensory scientist as a resource or being one yourself. Absolutely will allow you those tools really to work faster and I think that's the thing that I found for my benefit. Being able to balance product development with sensory is the fact that I've had enough times asking consumers about different things they've liked and different tests, other kinds of hedonic that I can get a sense of what product objectives are looking at in a project and better be able to say, okay, let's find the right strategic group of people to ask them these questions and make sure that the data we have balances the objective that we have. If it needs to be a larger amount of data, that we can absolutely do that and make sure statistical significance is there, we can do that. But none of us is still following upon that same balance that is already present there. They're really relying on, I snicker and pause only because I wish there is some magic difference, but it really the sensory knowledge that we had is just a matter of that being able to directly apply it to a business outcome. So not just a matter of saying whether a product is like more or whether it's different or not, it's taking that to, well, what does that mean in the context of this actual product? Like what does that mean for the business? And being able to take it that step further, I found there has been the night guy switch.

John: Now, it's really fascinating. You're basically that giant advertisement for a young person who might get interested in sensory, why should you do sensory like working on these problems? It's fascinating and at the end of the day, there's a product that tastes good and helps people. I think that's really exciting.

Trey: For sure.

John: Yeah. So were you, actually, we are trying to get close to the time, so I just have to be careful, so were you responsible for setting up the sensory program at Bulletproof? Was there someone before you had got it set up? What was the state of the sensory program there when you arrived?

Trey: Sure. So, I mean, there were fragments of, I think, a sensory program. I think what I did was be able to kind of coalesce everything together. So in terms of grouping things, in terms of product development versus, you know, ingredient qualification versus more externalism being the group and put a framework to all of that. Just to you know, like you talked about the beginning, making sure there is a method to the madness that span any area of sensory shelf-life included as well. All of these things were kind of happening independently of each other to some degree, but it's really bringing that ownership and centralization to it.

John: Right. Okay, and so I do want to get your advice, but before we get there, I'd like to know what are the things you're most excited about in the next few years? I mean, there's obviously a lot of technological advancements, a lot of ingredients that are kind of becoming more generally available. What are the things you look forward to the next two or three years that you're kind of most excited about either in your own research or in the field?

Trey: Sure. You know the thing I think is been the most exciting, actually, is the prospect of sensory and the virtual space because of how much of a challenge it has really been. It goes really against the face of everything we would think of being in proximity, being able to put all of your senses physically on and a product or an idea, and everything about covid is really turned it on its head. So the amount of innovation that's had to have happened in the space because obviously, companies have innovated, you know, and not in a vacuum as well. So to me, it is absolutely fascinating because it has been an absolute challenge, and being able to make sure that relevance is still there coming out of this.

John: Right. Yeah, I know that is really interesting. I mean, yeah, one thing that I really am excited about is the possibility of 3D printed smells and flavors in this kind of thing. The idea that you're going 3D printed food. But the idea that there could be some recipes where food or beverage or aromas are manufactured, you know, on-demand. And I think that there's always been the promise of smell and vision, right? But it does seem like it's starting to happen and I think that this idea of providing more enriched sensory experience in a virtual or augmented space is definitely important. And I think that for marketing like you're saying if someone isn't even going into the store anymore, it's a completely different question. How do you get people to try your product if you can't appeal to them in person? They're going to be shopping online. So that's yeah, these are all testing questions. Okay, Trey, I do want to get your advice, because we are almost out of time. So a bit of advice for young sensory scientists, what would you say maybe to yourself, if you could go back in time or someone in the modern moment? What would you advise that young person?

Trey: Sure, I would the biggest advice would really be to take the expertise you already have, because even knowing some of those fundamental differences that I know I take for granted like I keep going back to the hedonic versus difference, being able to take that communication a step further in terms of what that actually means to the project, to be able to do that at every point in stage of your career will really serve you. This highlights the value, not that sensory just has to research and development, but to the entire business. And I think that was the one thing I didn't quite appreciate that in my earlier stage of the career as I do now.

John: Now, that's a really good point. I mean, I do think it's true. A lot of people hold themselves back. They assume other people must know better or whatever, but actually not trust yourself. You actually do know a lot and speak up.

Trey: Right. I mean, when you're working for a food company, I mean, it's a very funny, straightforward thing. But if you're working for a food company, the logical thing would be to understand, does the food tastes good? You know, which obviously speaks to sensory, like when it really comes down to it. The sensory really is the star of the show. Like that really helps validate anything about what a food company is doing. Just in the same way nutritional research would validate any of the supplemental side of the work that's being done. Sensory is that validation of work so use that to empower yourself to help empower the rest of your colleagues.

John: Yes. Now, I definitely agree with that 100 percent. Yeah, that's a great way to end this call. Trey, I really appreciate it. It's been fascinating talking to you.

Trey: John, it's really been a pleasure. Thank you.

John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.


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